SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Jeffrey Manzanares started vaping nicotine two years ago because he thought it would be a safe way to quit smoking. Instead, it almost killed him.
The 33-year-old construction worker spent 17 days in a Utah hospital last month when he came down with a lung illness after vaping nicotine and THC, the high-inducing ingredient in marijuana. He lost 50 pounds.
He’s back at work now and on the mend, but he swears he’ll never touch a vaping pipe again. He offers a warning for anyone he sees vaping: “Hey, that almost killed me.”
“I want people to know stuff you see on the news is not a joke. I was literally almost dead,” Manzanares said. “It’s not a safer alternative.”
He is one of 109 people who have suffered vaping-related lung illnesses in the state, according to an updated tally Monday from the Utah Department of Health.
Utah has one of the 34 deaths reported nationwide in the outbreak, and the state’s rate of 26 vaping-related illness cases per 1 million people as of mid-October was more than six times the national rate, according to a federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention report based on Utah Health Department data. Most are men, and the median age is 26, the data shows.
Nationally, 1,600 cases have been reported as of Oct. 22, according to CDC data. The agency did not provide vaping rates for other states.
Utah health care officials are trying to pinpoint why the state has been hit so hard. The state’s adult vaping rate is about the national average, and the youth rate is significantly lower than the national rate, according to CDC data.
The state prohibits recreational marijuana, and while medical marijuana is legal, the state has yet to open dispensaries or issue patient cards.
THC vaping cartridges are fueling the outbreak, and most of what’s been tested in Utah’s cases appear to be from the black market, said Angela Dunn, the state epidemiologist for Utah Department of Health.
There are indications the contaminated batches are coming from California, though that hasn’t been confirmed.
Last year, more than 50 people around Salt Lake City were poisoned by vapors containing synthetic marijuana from a California company in a separate outbreak.
Mirroring national findings, researchers have found vitamin E acetate, a thickener that looks similar to cannabis oil, in some of the liquids tested, she said.
The Utah Department of Health passed an emergency rule restricting the sale of flavored e-cigarettes in the state. But a judge on Monday temporarily blocked the rule while saying state officials didn’t show a link between flavored nicotine vaping and the outbreak.
Utah Highway Patrol St. Nick Street said the agency has seized 40,000 THC vaping cartridges and 15,000 grams of THC extract this year, most of which appears to be coming from the black market. Troopers usually find the cartridges in hidden car compartments on Interstate 15 in southern Utah heading north, he said.
Dr. Scott Aberegg, a physician and an associate professor at the University of Utah who specializes in pulmonary medicine, said it has been difficult to get many of the young patients to admit they vaped THC or provide details about where they got it, perhaps because of social pressures in a state where nearly two-thirds of the residents belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The faith instructs its members to follow a strict health code that bans smoking, recreational marijuana use and alcohol. The Utah-based church in August strongly reiterated vaping is prohibited.
Manzanares, who is not a member of the faith, said he got the THC, which he used to help sleep, from an acquaintance. He doesn’t know where that person got it.
Aberegg treated Manzanares and called it one of the worst cases Utah has seen. Manzanares also had viral pneumonia, which Aberegg said compounded the issue. As flu season looms, Aberegg worries they will see more cases of people suffering from vaping illnesses and the flu.
“If it’s still happening during influenza season, you’re going to see some really bad illnesses, like two-plus-two equals seven,” Aberegg said.